Restoring a Derelict House in Brittany

Restoring a Derelict House in Brittany

Jenny and John are doing all the work themselves

In August 2012 Jenny (a freelance management consultant) and her partner John (a self-employed builder) moved to Huelgoat in Brittany, where they are converting a local property into their dream home. It’s now August 2013, and Jenny talks us through the ups and downs of the project one year on.

What did you buy and why?

Brittany was the perfect choice for a number of reasons. We both have daughters in the UK. Huelgoat is about 45 minutes from Roscoff, an hour from Brest airport or two hours from Dinard airport which has direct flights. Looking around Brittany, we were drawn back to Huelgoat time and again. The town is small with many cafes, bars and patisseries. There is also a large lake that you can stroll around or sit with a drink admiring the view. The house had not been lived in for many years. There was no electricity, floors were missing, windows were broken, there was no backdoor and no working indoor bathroom. The kitchen consisted of a sink unit and some old cupboards, there was woodworm and dry rot throughout the joists and walls, but we still fell in love with it.

How have you found the renovation process so far?

Well we have just hit our first sink or swim milestone, we have been renovating the house for a year, and we can’t believe how quickly the year has gone. We have come so far in such a short amount of time, we are not yet finished but we can see the light at the end of the tunnel. We have just taken a six week holiday to tour part of Europe, this may seem a strange thing when we still have so much work left to do, but we have now realised that you must take a break from the renovation, or you could easily become very disillusioned. During June 2013, we had got to the point of working nonstop and the strain was starting to show, we had started to bicker, lose momentum and become really fed up of living on a building site. We needed to take the holiday to regroup and come back full of that original energy we had at the beginning, I am pleased to say that it worked. The first year has been a roller-coaster ride of emotions, from the excitement of doing a project like this to the reality of living with no home comforts, from the camaraderie of doing it together through to the tension of living in each other’s pockets when there is nowhere to escape too.

Huelgoat town square and forest

The house now looks very different. We had to prioritise work at the beginning and the first priority was to make the house secure and get the electricity supply working. The joy of having a working light bulb was unbelievable, we had been living with garden solar powered lights until this point!

The next priority was to get some plumbing into the house, I still cannot believe I used the original old bath, with a solar powered light for a few weeks. I shudder each time I think about this! Once we had the basics we could start on the renovation, we planned to start at the top of the house and work our way down. This meant that plumbing and electricity could go in, in a methodical manner. The house was originally a five-bedroom townhouse with one bathroom, which we have turned into a three-bedroom house with three bathrooms. The two attic rooms are now one large bedroom with a large en suite, the two front bedrooms are another large bedroom with a large en suite and the back bedroom has a separate large family bathroom next to it. This room we are using as a lounge as we are just starting on the ground floor.

What is your “proudest achievement” part of the house?

We have so many proud moments in the house, like getting all of the electrics installed to French Standards. French Electricity standards are different to those in the UK.

Bathroom before and after

Having our first indoor bathroom installed, being able to take a shower in warm water may sound like an expected standard but after bathing in an inch of lukewarm water in an old bath, the joy is indescribable. But our best moment to date is actually having a bedroom with a real bed; we had made do with inflatable beds and then a bed settee, to actually be able to go to bed in a clean room with a working en suite is one of the greatest joys we have ever known. We use the first floor bedroom. When we first bought the house this was the room that was used by the wild cats, we know this by the mess that had been left behind, this floor is now unrecognisable. One thing we have realised is that achievements and joys are very different to those that we remember. The simple things in life really are the best, in the UK we aimed for so much, yet here just having the basics is fantastic, we have a much simpler way of life and to be honest we do not miss all of the trappings we used to have, we have discussed how we will furnish the house when it is finished and we have decided that we will keep to the basics, we do not need all of the clutter and the latest hi-tech gadgetry that we used to strive for.

Stairs before and after

We do have another proud achievement which is related to the house but not as part of the building, is the blog that we started to keep family informed of what we were doing. It has taken off fantastically and is read worldwide, we have been featured in different magazines and we have made some fantastic friendships from it including having people come to the house to visit us, just to see the “blog” in real life.

Would you do anything differently?

We would not change anything about the process we have followed as we were lucky enough to change our plans before we bought, we had planned on buying a barn in the country, but there were so many issues with septic tanks and isolation that we decided to buy a town house. This was the best decision we made as we know people who have bought in the country and the feelings of isolation can be overwhelming. Living in a small town we do not have this problem as we have made a number of good friends who have been willing to assist us with translation and invite us to dinner so we can leave the building site! We are also connected to mains drains so we do not have to go through the issues with the septic tanks; this is a real problem outside of towns in France.

Front bedroom before and after

What would be your advice to someone thinking about buying for a DIY renovation?

We would advise anybody considering a renovation to think very carefully about what you want, especially in relation to the isolation, a country property is beautiful but for your first experience there is a lot more work involved.
Be prepared, we have a great relationship and worked together before leaving the UK, but we still got to the point where we struggled, living and working together 24 hours a day can be draining, especially if you do not have any home comforts. Be very wary of some of the advice you receive, one tip is to ask the same question to at least three different people and see what answers you receive. Whilst it has been good to listen to people advising us, you really need to find out for yourself, your skills maybe superior to those of the people advising you. But the biggest piece of advice is to integrate within your new community, try to learn the new language and embrace the culture, enjoy the food and your new way of life, after all you chose to live in that country.

Bedroom before and after

Were there any particular challenges?

If you are renovating a property in France, ensure that you are doing everything correctly, for the electrics follow French regulations, do not rewire a house the same way you would in the UK. This is the one job we brought someone in to do, as it is different to the UK. Make sure you can change the property, get the correct permissions, we live in a national park , which means that we cannot change the exterior in any way, without planning permission, we could not install new windows (like for like) without planning permission, and planning permission can take time, even if you are replacing something broken.

What is your favorite thing to do around your “neighbourhood”.

We live in a beautiful area, a small town in the middle of an enchanted forest. I have started cycling regularly with a new friend here and each ride shows me more and more of the local area. The forest is beautiful and changes with each season, I have still to decide which my favourite is. We will go for a meal or drink at one of the local restaurants and sit and watch the sunset over the lake, we don’t think we will ever get used to the idea that this is actually our back garden. Our life here is much slower and we get to enjoy just strolling through beautiful scenery or eating out with friends. This is the one of the best aspects of living in a small rural town – life is based on enjoying yourself in a laid back way with like-minded people.

by Sylvia Davis, Property & Living Editor
With thanks to Jenny and John

If you would like to follow progress on Jenny and John’s renovation visit their blog.
They are planning to offer guest accomodation starting in April 2014. If you’d like to make a reservation you can email them at [email protected]

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